Once Thanksgiving was over, it was open season on Christmas.
One of the first things we did was make wreaths, which generally involved me getting a few bags full of ground pine from the swampy woodland out back of the property.
I don’t recall being shown where the ground pine was, or how to get at it, but someone must have taught me because each year, Mom would give me two paper shopping bags and tell me to go gather ground pine.
I recall doing this when I couldn’t have been more than ten, and I recall bringing my brother Marc with me on some years, and he was just about walking, so I might have been as young as eight.
The woods I went to were no more than a thousand feet from our back door, but it took me well out of sigh (and screaming distance) from the house, into a woodland filled with rotting logs, snow-crusted ground and pools of water of uncertain depth, often skimmed over with ice. There was, however, no thought of danger, or adventure; it was just a chore that needed doing.
Ground Pine is a plant that grows on a runner—a long root that winds through the forest, poking sprigs of pine-like branches through the duff. I would run my gloved hand over the crackling leaves, often dusted with snow, clearing here and there until I located it. I only needed one sprout. Once I found one, I just had to pull it and an unending string of shoots became uprooted. I’d follow the thread, pulling up more and more until I had both bags stuffed full.
The bags deserve a quick mention.
Back then, when you went to the grocery store, they packed your purchases in brown, paper bags. These were free, bio-degradable and extraordinarily versatile. As with the newer, non-biodegradable variety, every household had a bag filled with empty bags to use for whatever need came to hand.
Mostly, we used them to line the garbage cans, making it easy to just lift out the whole bag and take it to the burning barrel. Otherwise, we used them to cover our schoolbooks, make masks (you could put your head in them without suffocating) or let the cats play with them (you have no idea).
Cut apart and flattened, they made large sheets of brown paper that could be used for all manner of arts and crafty things.
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Back home, Mom would bend a wire coat hanger into a circle and weave the long strands around and around until it was green and bushy. Then she’d dress it up with a bow and hang it on the front door.
We’d also make Santa Claus faces out of paper plates and coloured paper. If cotton balls were available, we’d make the beard and hat trim out of them, otherwise, we’d just use white paper. Mom would help us cut the paper for the beard into long strips and use the scissors to curl them. Then we’d make chains out of strips of coloured paper—one link for every day until Christmas—and attach them to Santa’s beard. We’d hang them wherever there was room—bedroom door, refrigerator, kitchen wall—and tear off a link every morning.
In later years, I came up with other ways to do a Christmas countdown, but I do not recall ever encountering the concept of an Advent Calendar until I moved to Britain. (I’m not saying they didn’t exist; just that I hadn’t noticed any.) They are very prevalent now, in both continents, and I expect the idea of a paper chain to count the days pales in comparison to getting a chocolate or a little toy every day.
We’d also make decorations for the house, such as folding Reader’s Digests into trees, and Mom would hang up some garlands and bring out the Christmas candles, festooned with plastic holly and mistletoe.
Also, she’d tape the Christmas cards we received up around the door frames. People sent a lot of Christmas cards back then, so all the door frames were filled. At night, the ones taped to my door cast a shadow on the wall that looked like a monster’s mouth. But it wasn’t a frightening monster—it meant that Christmas was on its way.
It was a tradition in our family that the tree did not go up until Christmas Eve. Wrapped presents, likewise, were hidden and didn’t appear until then, so decorations were all we had. On the 23rd or 24th, Dad would come home with a tree and stick it in the snowbank outside the house—the signal that Christmas was about to begin.
As soon as we tore all the paper rings off the paper-plate Santas.